In a breakout session in a windowless conference room at last weekend’s Moms for Liberty “Joyful Warrior Summit” in Philadelphia, Christian Ziegler, the chairman of the Florida Republican Party and father of three school-aged daughters, is stiffening spines. Dozens of attendees, mostly women, are nodding and taking notes as Ziegler explains how to work with local news media.
“Your product is parental rights. Your product is protecting children and eliminating indoctrination and the sexualization of children. You’re the grassroots. You’re on the ground. You’re the moms, the grandparents, the families that are impacted. The stories you tell help set a narrative,” Ziegler coaches them.
One story above us, the ballroom floor of the downtown Marriott is groaning under the weight of crowded press risers, where camera crews have set up for the parade of Republican presidential hopefuls coming here to curry favor with the more than 600 Moms for Liberty members attending—and a few thousand more watching the livestream.
Ron DeSantis held forth this morning. Nikki Haley is scheduled to speak at lunch. Donald Trump will close things out later this afternoon. Entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy and former Arkansas governor Asa Hutchinson are on tap for tomorrow.
It’s an astonishing display of political drawing power, considering Moms for Liberty didn’t even exist three years ago. The candidates have all come to pay obeisance to the animating idea that has galvanized these women: that parents—not the government—should be in charge of how their children are raised and educated.
If you want to understand why these politicians have come, you need to go to the breakout sessions, away from the camera’s gaze, where, hour after hour, Moms for Liberty chapter leaders and foot soldiers learn how to run for school boards—and if they win, how to advance their agenda even when in the minority. There are talks on messaging strategies and mining school board minutes for signs of “woke indoctrination.” There are workshops on how to file public records requests and navigate the legal system.
They aren’t messing around. More than half of the 500 candidates Moms for Liberty endorsed for local school board elections last year won their races. “School choice moms” provided the margin of victory in DeSantis’ first run for Florida governor in 2018. Democrat Terry McAuliffe was leading the race for Virginia governor in 2021 before his debate remark that “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach” handed the win to Republican Glenn Youngkin.
Moms for Liberty is the beating heart of this country’s movement of angry parents—and American education has never seen anything quite like it.
Moms for Liberty launched in January 2021 when frustration with pandemic masking rules had reached a boiling point. Requests to form local chapters started coming in almost immediately after co-founder Tina Descovich called in to Glenn Beck’s radio show. Appearances on The Rush Limbaugh Show, Fox News, and Steve Bannon’s War Room quickly followed. Within six months, Megyn Kelly was hosting a fundraiser. Its slogan, emblazoned on thousands of t-shirts, is “We don’t co-parent with the government.”
That message has found an enormous and growing audience. With 120,000 members and nearly 300 chapters in 45 U.S. states, Moms for Liberty is already the most consequential education advocacy organization since Teach For America—but with none of the halo effect that inspired a generation of elite college grads to put off law school and Wall Street to teach in inner cities.
Moms for Liberty is Teach For America’s dark opposite number. They won’t be talked out of their conviction that malign forces in public schools—gender ideology, critical race theory, Marxism, anti-Americanism—have come for their children, and they’re having exactly none of it.
“I think they’re one of the few truly authentic and responsive edu-parental rights groups that has emerged in recent history,” says a prominent parent choice supporter not associated with Moms for Liberty, who would only speak anonymously because of the group’s radioactive reputation in education and philanthropic circles. “They’re not just mouthpieces on social media; they have a real following. If they weren’t effective, and if their message wasn’t resonant, they wouldn’t be so vilified.”
It’s true the group attracts and frequently abides a lunatic fringe, fueling its critics’ counternarrative that the movement is intolerant, racist even.
Just last week, an Indiana Moms for Liberty chapter put a Hitler quote in its newsletter and the story went national. The quote—“He alone, who owns the youth, gains the future”—was intended to warn parents what happens when a regime targets its children for indoctrination. But when critics are calling you ultra-right wing Christofascists, it’s probably unwise to invoke Hitler in any context.
The local chapter chair apologized, “probably because she hasn’t gone through this” training, Ziegler tells the crowd.
“Frankly, it was bullshit.”
Even before the Hitler controversy, media coverage of the group has been harsh. The Nation described Moms for Liberty as “hateful fascist bigots.” The New Republic said the group has “created nightmares for schools across the country.” An article in Vice reported they have ties to the Proud Boys—a claim that co-founder Tiffany Justice strenuously denied to me. A story in The Washington Post led with the Southern Poverty Law Center’s recent designation of Moms for Liberty as an “extremist group” devoted to spreading “messages of anti-inclusion and hate.”
When Ziegler’s wife, Bridget, one of the original Moms for Liberty, started serving on the school board in Sarasota County, Florida, nearly a decade ago, the negative press coverage reduced her to tears. Now, Ziegler tells the room, the couple compares their bad press clips on date nights.
“You actually get to this amazing moment when you realize, ‘Hey, if they attack me, I can go raise money on this. I can get my message out by piggybacking on that attack,’ ” advises Ziegler.
“It’s brutal to be on defense,” he continues. “Always play offense. Never apologize. Never, ever, never,” he insists.
Ziegler, meanwhile, likes this morning’s Washington Post story just fine, even though it details a litany of complaints and criticisms aimed at the group. “Moms for Liberty didn’t exist three years ago. Now,” the paper says, “it’s a GOP kingmaker.”
“Probably the best headline I’ve ever seen,” he grins.
In 2021, the National School Boards Association (NSBA) was forced to apologize after a letter it sent to the Biden administration went viral, asking for federal law enforcement to stop “domestic terrorism” at school board meetings. While Moms for Liberty was not mentioned by name, the letter cited several incidents at which members had protested. Since then, 25 state associations have cut ties with NSBA. At the Philadelphia summit, a handful of mothers were proudly wearing “Domestic Terrorist” t-shirts.
Outside the Marriott, protesters from ACT UP Philly and the Young Communist League are registering their displeasure with an all-day “dance party protest”—a strange response to the fascist threat they insist is unfolding four flights up. From beyond barricades several hundred feet away they shout at the hotel and wave signs: “Philly is a Trans City,” “Kancel Klanned Karenhood,” and “Moms for Liberty Go Home!”
But the Moms are unrepentant. They seem almost to revel in the abuse.
On the eve of the Philadelphia Summit, co-founder Tiffany Justice told me, “We are fighting for the survival of America by unifying, educating, and empowering parents to defend their parental rights at all levels of government.”
A few years ago, if you had to bet on which parent organization could influence the 2024 election, the smart wager would have been on the well-funded National Parents Union (NPU), which calls itself an “authentically parent-led organization,” a label that Moms for Liberty would undoubtedly use to describe itself.
The afternoon before Moms for Liberty kicked off their conference, NPU held a sparsely attended rally in Philadelphia’s Love Park to condemn its “evil and divisive” rival, which, it claimed, seeks school book bans and to whitewash history lessons taught to children. What Moms for Liberty insists are efforts to keep pornography out of school libraries and to combat “indoctrination” about critical race theory and gender fluidity, NPU says are attempts to attack and marginalize children of color and LGBTQ youth.
At the Love Park rally, NPU’s president publicly blasted Moms for Liberty, stating unironically that they’re bankrolled by “big checks from the evils of white supremacy.” NPU, for its part, has raised millions in philanthropic support from the Walton Family Foundation, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, and the Charles Koch Institute-backed Vela Fund.
Moms for Liberty’s most recent tax filings from 2021 claim a modest $370,000 of revenue. Descovich says accountants are finalizing Moms for Liberty’s updated Form 990, which “will show that our revenue sources have grown from merchandise sales and small donors to include large donors too.” Justice confirms that she and Descovich now draw full-time salaries for their work. They are two of nine full-time staffers.
Their grassroots appeal is easily observable. At the summit, I ran into a neighbor who last year upended our small town in upstate New York with a failed campaign for school board, pushing back on “government overreach” and demanding a return to “traditional education.”
“What are the chances we’d run into each other here!” he greets me.
“Probably 100 percent,” I reply. I write about education for a living and he’s here with his wife, who’s thinking about launching a local chapter. They are the Moms for Liberty couple from central casting.
Until Moms for Liberty, efforts to organize parents into an effective political counterweight to teachers unions and to impose their will on K–12 education haven’t amounted to very much. Colleen Dippel, the founder of Houston-based Families Empowered, a parent support organization with no connection to the group, says of Moms for Liberty: “They are doing things that other organizations have received millions of dollars to do and haven’t been able to get done. The National Parents Union hasn’t flipped a school board. They haven’t changed a policy that I’m aware of.”
The rise of Moms for Liberty as a force in education policy, local elections, and now the 2024 campaign is, if anything, a function of their refusal to follow the playbook common to parent advocacy organizations, which tend to wither and die when their philanthropic support dries up.
“Philanthropists will never be able to control these women,” says Dippel. “Why? Because these women are college educated and they don’t need their money. They also have time, they have skills, and they’re empowered primary voters. The message they send to elected officials is, ‘No, no, no. My kid, my money, you work for me. And if you don’t, I’ll organize all these other women, tell them what’s going on, and kick you out of office, because that’s democracy, right?’ ”
At a private dinner on Friday night after Trump’s speech, pollster Jim McLaughlin presented Moms for Liberty’s leaders and advisers with the results of a survey he conducted of likely voters in the upcoming general election. A clear majority (67 percent) feel that K–12 public education in the U.S. is “on the wrong track,” including half of Democrats, he says. Nearly three-fourths, including independents and Biden voters, think it’s more important for schools to teach children “basics” like reading, writing, and math rather than “issues of social justice, reproductive rights, sex education, and transgender issues.”
Matt Palumbo, a 30-year veteran Republican political adviser who has worked on seven presidential campaigns and attended the briefing said, “I’ve never seen a consensus like this. This is a winning issue.”
Obviously, schools do not choose between teaching reading and gender ideology, but it was hard to miss the narrative taking shape in real time in Philadelphia. The basic thrust of Moms for Liberty’s advocacy—that parents, not the government, should have the ultimate say in what children are taught in public schools—has legs. Not one subgroup in McLaughlin’s crosstabs—Trump or Biden voters; pro-life or pro-choice; black, white, or Hispanic; urban, rural, or suburban—disagrees.
Education is a state issue, not a federal one; schools are ground zero in the country’s culture war, and Moms for Liberty is positioned to be at the center of it through next November. A majority of Americans simply don’t buy the idea that a person can be a gender other than the one “assigned at birth,” and they don’t want their children taught otherwise in public schools. Every presidential contender who came to the summit talked about it in one form or another. And the crowd leapt to its feet every time.
But the passion and energy that has rocketed Moms for Liberty to kingmaker status is also its Achilles heel: some overly zealous members have gone too far.
Members of a local Tennessee chapter last year, for example, sued to remove an outstanding English curriculum, Wit & Wisdom, from their school district, on the grounds that its elementary school texts about civil rights icons Ruby Bridges and Martin Luther King Jr. are too dark and disturbing for children and violate state laws against teaching critical race theory. A New Hampshire chapter offered a $500 bounty “for the person that first successfully catches a public school teacher breaking this [state’s anti-critical race theory] law.” An Arkansas Mom was banned from school grounds after an audio recording captured her saying “if I had any mental issues, [school employees] would all be plowed down by a freaking gun right now.”
Neither are the group’s fanatical elements limited only to local chapters. On Saturday morning at the conference, Moms for Liberty fixture James Lindsay painted a picture of the organization as “war moms” fighting a “Maoist cultural revolution” engineered at the highest levels of government and elite institutions. When Mao came to power, Lindsay claimed, his first step was to close schools and reeducate teachers. “They shut down the schools for two years and came back with a whole new program. Does that sound familiar?”
Lindsay’s conspiracy theory earned him a raucous standing ovation.
Erika Donalds, the wife of Florida Congressman Byron Donalds and another former school board member who was present at the founding (she remains on Moms for Liberty’s board), believes the group is ready for its moment in the national spotlight, but she’s clear-eyed about the potential pitfalls of such a rapid rise. “They’re very intentional about who speaks on behalf of the organization. They train their members on the issues, and they get out in front of things,” she says. “But their biggest risk is some rogue woman wearing a Moms for Liberty shirt at a school board meeting acting like a cuckoo.”
Tiffany Justice acknowledges the risk to the brand but minimizes the downside.
“There is no doubt in my mind that there will be things that chapters do that we may not agree with, or we may not be able to stop in advance,” she tells me. “If it rises to something that’s the level of violating our code of conduct, we have no problem removing a chapter chair or taking the steps to remove a member. It’s not all sunshine and rainbows. This work is difficult. And we know that.”
Teach For America, which is now derided by conservatives for its hard left turn into “woke” education, claims that 270 of its alumni serve in elected positions around the country “from state representatives to city council members to school board officials.” Moms for Liberty might have that many or more school board members already, and a multiple of that number weighing a run. Teach For America has been around for 30 years. Moms for Liberty? Thirty months. And the way things are going, their influence is likely to explode in the next few years.
“Today’s school board members are tomorrow’s state legislators,” said Christian Ziegler, the Florida Republican Party chairman, when I spoke with him a few days after the Philadelphia summit. His wife, Bridget, who is serving what she says will be her last school board term in Sarasota, is leading a new program for school board candidates at the Virginia-based Leadership Institute, which since 1979 has trained 250,000 conservative activists in campaigns, fundraising, and communications.
“And today’s state legislators are tomorrow’s congressmen.”
For more about the education culture wars, read Eric Kaufmann’s recent piece “The Indoctrination of the American Mind.”
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